How to Buy a Friend: Episodes 1-2
KBS’s latest short drama series, How to Buy a Friend, focuses on the circumstances of a tragic death on a high school campus. There’s an interesting mix of darkness with light moments and not a moment is wasted as our young protagonists form some unlikely friendships.
EPISODE 1: “What could you possibly do with a poem?”
We’re greeted by the bloodied and bruised face of PARK CHAN-HONG (Lee Shin-young), who’s tied to a chair in an abandoned warehouse and wondering how he got himself into this situation.
He pinpoints the boy being pinned down on the floor, HEO DON-HYUK (Shin Seung-ho) as the cause of his current conundrum. Chan-hong scoffs to himself, “You said you were a good fighter like Iron Man. What a joke.”
A car screeches into the building and the henchman bow as a woman in red heels saunters out. She settles into a posh chair and tells Chan-hong to hand “it” over before he and Don-hyuk are hurt further. We’re not told what “it” is but Don-hyuk shouts in protest and promptly gets beaten.
She threatens to kill Don-hyuk but Chan-hong mentally retorts they aren’t friends–they had a contract. Patience running thin, the woman picks up an electric drill and aims it at Chan-hong’s head. He quivers in rage and fear, and he says the real reason he’s in this mess is “because wet sand remembers footprints.”
Confounded by the random statement, she cackles and brushes her hand against his cheek. Chan-hong laughs along until he’s suddenly knocked down from behind.
His current circumstances begin to overlap with an entirely different place and time. White petals rain down as Chan-hong lies on the floor and we see a girl falling from a building. She lands on the ground, haloed by blood and white petals.
The fallen girl’s name tag reads Shin Seo-jung. As he loses consciousness, Chan-hong thinks to himself that he should never have written that cursed poem since everything started because of it.
2 Months Ago
Chan-hong’s morning is off to a bad start as he oversleeps on the first day of the new school semester. His mother OH JUNG-HEE (Baek Ji-won) tells him to mind his grades instead of worrying about whether or not she’s paid his cram school fees on time.
Dad PARK CHOONG-JAE (Kim Won-hae) feeds him a mouthful of breakfast while telling him to just aim for the middle.
He cycles to school and thinks to himself that there’s truth in Dad’s words, you can’t always aim high. At school, perfectly average 18-year-old Chan-hong briefly makes eye contact with UHM SE-YOON (Kim So-hye). She’s the prettiest girl in school, with perfect grades to boot–so there’s no way she would even know he existed.
He laments his average face and fate, but comforts himself with the knowledge that his averageness has helped him escape the attention of the school bully, which is how he earned his nickname, Ninja.
In class, literature teacher WOO TAE-JUNG (Kim In-kwon) tasks everyone with writing a poem. The best poet will represent the school at an upcoming competition. Chan-hong’s best friend OH KYUNG-PYO (Oh Hee-joon) quickly jots down a “poem,” which are just lyrics swiped from a Beenzino song. Kyung-pyo insists there’s no way Teacher Woo would recognize the lyrics and urges Chan-hong to write down any old song so they can leave for lunch.
Outside, Se-yoon stares at the top of the building SHIN SEO-JUNG (Jo Yi-hyun) fell from. Spotting Se-yoon, Chan-hong and Kyung-pyo discuss their sunbae’s death the year before. Chan-hong doesn’t remember much since he was in an accident on the same day, but the news had deemed it suicide related to academic stress.
Kyung-pyo doesn’t buy it; there were rumors about her picking up guys and certain photos had made the rounds. Her cellphone was never recovered, and rumor has it that she and Se-yoon might have been a secret couple.
At the school snack shop, a student comes in looking for Chan-hong: Teacher Woo wants to see him. Thinking he’s busted, Chan-hong’s about to apologize when Teacher Woo appoints him the school representative. Teacher Woo praises his talent and asks him to read his poem aloud for everyone in the staff room.
When Chan-hong hesitates, Teacher Woo begins to read it instead, but he’s so moved that he breaks down in tears before he can finish the poem and wraps Chan-hong in a big hug.
While arguing about whether or not to come clean, Chan-hong and Kyung-pyo cross paths a woman dressed to the nines: Don-hyuk’s mother. She’s come to meet Teacher Woo, and when he asks after Don-hyuk, she says he was unable to make it.
Kyung-pyo shares Don-hyuk’s reputation with Chan-hong: the infamous Iron Man who put ten guys in the hospital is transferring to their school. We see Don-hyuk walking out of a detention center.
Grasping for a way to get out of the writing competition, Chan-hong suggests going away to visit his grandmother. While his father agrees, Mom isn’t keen. Petulant, Dad and Chan-hong break into song about a mother hating her own mother, dancing around an appalled Mom. Cute.
At school, Chan-hong tests out his family event excuse, but when Teacher Woo insists on putting in a good word to Chan-hong’s mom, his excuse changes to stage fright. Ignoring him, Teacher Woo calls over Se-yoon, who will be entering the competition in the art category.
As they stand around awkwardly, Teacher Woo tells them to at least shake hands. Se-yoon smiles and extends her hand. After a beat, Chan-hong shyly grasps her fingertips for a timid shake.
On the day of the competition, Se-yoon casually tosses her cigarette into the snow as Chan-hong approaches. Nervous, Chan-hong prattles on and is generally a bundle of nerves around Se-yoon. He’s thrilled when he belatedly realizes she’s remembered his name.
As the competition kicks off, the students are allowed three hours to do whatever they wish, where they wish. Chan-hong follows Se-yoon out into the snow and does what she does; the two build snowmen instead of working on their competition pieces.
Se-yoon explains that she’s not drawing because she’s afraid she might hate her dad. If she wins the contest but he still opposes her majoring in art, she’ll be hurt.
When Chan-hong asks how she feels about studying art, she wonders why that’s important. In response, he picks at her snowman and she runs over to fix it.
Chan-hong tells her his dad once said if you run after something without having to think about it, it must be something you love. He points out that she instinctively cared about her snowman being ruined when he didn’t.
He leaves a pair of gloves for her on a branch while she works on her art in the snow.
“Wet sand remembers footprints.” The line comes to mind as he pens his submission in a hall emptying of students. The scene briefly cuts to Seo-jung falling to her death once again.
Chan-hong and Se-yoon pose with their awards as Teacher Woo and Teacher Choi snap their photo. They admire their winning entries on the school notice board and Chan-hong praises Se-yoon’s artwork.
Se-yoon asks if Chan-hong really came up with that line, “wet sand remembers footprints,” and says it’s amazing (though her face suggests something more).
When Se-yoon returns home, her mom barely pays her any attention while her dad just tells her to go study in her room before she can get a word out. Well, hello to you too. Alone in her room, Se-yoon looks at her certificate again and congratulates herself.
In contrast, Chan-hong’s parents congratulate him as they look at his certificate together. Through a forced smile, Mom says poets starve these days and asks him to write for TV instead. His parents bicker as Chan-hong is distracted by thoughts of romance and Se-yoon. Impressed with himself, Chan-hong can’t believe he came up with such a brilliant line and wonders if he’s a genius.
Chan-hong narrates that he’s become a visible ninja because Se-yoon was so good at finding him. Chan-hong bikes in the warming weather as he continues, “This is how the spring of our 19th year began. It was a spring that does not forgive dying things and reveals what’s hidden in the snow. A spring that urges you to shoot up.” Don-hyuk works out in a shabby room all alone.
Abruptly, we see Se-yoon locking her bedroom door behind her. She tries to collect herself before tentatively opening a box she had tucked away in a drawer. She opens the box and a pink cellphone lies inside.
Se-yoon switches it on and correctly guesses the password (Seo-jung’s birthday). Threatening messages pour through, all from the same person.
The blackmailer accuses Seo-jung of not keeping her word and threatens to make her videos public if they don’t get paid soon. Se-yoon cries in horror as she sees several videos of Seo-jung being sexually assaulted.
Chan-hong continues his thoughts about the new season, “Spring that tells you to forget about winter. That cruel spring has begun.”
Boys part like the Red Sea as Don-hyuk walks down the hallway. The transfer student needs no introduction–his reputation precedes him. Chan-hong declares him a giant deserving of his Iron Man title. Kyung-pyo has an ominous feeling and the besties head off to different classes for the first time since knowing each other.
A lady in a red suit is greeted by school staff, JO PYEONG-SUB (Jang Hye-jin). Whoa, it’s the same woman who was holding Chan-hong and Don-hyuk hostage earlier on! The staff thank her for donating to the school as they walk her into a room.
Chan-hong is texting Se-yoon when he notices the school bully, Kim Dae-yong, is in his class. Dae-yong catches his eye and changes targets. Addressing Chan-hong as the poet, Dae-yong kicks down an empty desk next to Chan-hong’s just as Don-hyuk walks in.
A tense but restrained confrontation occurs. Dae-yong tries to provoke Don-hyuk, who remains unamused and unperturbed. Dae-yong forces Chan-hong and the former target to head to the cafeteria with him. Chan-hong sighs and follows him reluctantly.
Don-hyuk looks shocked when he spots Seo-jung’s name on locker. He opens it expectantly but it’s empty. How were they acquainted?
Dae-yong “treats” Chan-hong to snacks and asks for an introduction to Se-yoon. Kyung-pyo tries (and fails) to rescue Chan-hong from the conversation.
Later in the day, Se-yoon asks Chan-hong if he’s ever been in a situation where he’s seen something frightening. If she turns a blind eye, it would be like nothing ever happened. If she confronts the thing, it would be scary and it might not change anything. What’s the right thing to do?
His reply is sweet, he’d like her not to get hurt and to do whatever makes her happier.
Speaking of scary things, Dae-yong flips out at Chan-hong for being so slow to introduce Se-yoon to him. He names a time and place and says Chan-hong is dead if Se-yoon’s not there.
It looks like Chan-hong’s arranged to meet Se-yoon where Dae-yong wanted, but he changes his mind at the last minute and asks Se-yoon to meet him elsewhere. He’s a step too late as she shows up just then. She asks about his bruised face and just as they are about to leave, Dae-yong makes his entrance.
Se-yoon tries to read Chan-hong’s expression. He reluctantly steps out and Se-yoon doesn’t meet his eye, annoyed at the set up. He thinks to himself that it’s hard to be normal because he’s below average.
Despite having his hood up, Mom’s instincts kick in and she demands to know what happened to his face. Dad tells Mom to let him be as Chan-hong locks himself in his room and pops in a cassette tape titled Reminiscence of Kim Sung-ho. He wonders aloud why he’s crying even though they aren’t dating.
The next time they bump into each other, Se-yoon walks on without a word.
We see numerous awards and framed photos along the wall of a private office. Over the phone, Madam Jo talks about “the kid who died last year” and asks where the kid’s cellphone is.
As Dae-yong slaps Chan-hong with a book, cash flies out from its pages. Chan-hong gets kicked when he tries to pick the notes up, desperately explaining that the money is for his cram school classes. Don-hyuk is clearly bothered but chooses to stay out of it. When he spots Chan-hong’s poem on the school notice board, he does a double-take at the last line in the poem.
In the past, the same words appear in a text message from Seo-jung and Don-hyuk stares at her incoming call, reluctant to pick up. Seo-jung has already sent a series of texts pleading Don-hyuk to pick up his phone as she has something to say and no one else she can speak to. We see his horror when he hears about her death on the news.
Chan-hong is getting another beating, courtesy of Dae-yong since his “date” with Se-yoon didn’t go well. Don-hyuk steps in requesting a word with Chan-hong. He demands to know if Chan-hong came up with that line in his poem and offers him a lifeline, “If you need my help, just say the weather’s great.” If he takes the offer, he owes Don-hyuk.
As Chan-hong bears kicks to his back and watches Don-hyuk walk away, Seo-jung speaks to someone who sounds exactly like Chan-hong:
Seo-jung: “Do you know why the ground freezes during winter?”
Chan-hong: “It’s holding onto the water that the seeds need during spring.”
Seo-jung: “Wet sand remembers footprints.”
Chan-hong shouts the secret code, stopping Don-hyuk in his tracks. His gaze changes and he charges Dae-yong, knocking the bully off his feet with a single blow.
We see Chan-hong thanking Don-hyuk on the rooftop, agreeing to repay the favor. To his confusion, Don-hyuk tells him to jump, pushing Chan-hong to the railings by his neck before the poor dude can even register what’s happening.
Strangling him and tilting him over the edge, Don-hyuk asks if Chan-hong killed Seo-jung. Chan-hong thinks he should’ve never written that darn poem.
It’s unclear if we’re in the past, but Se-yoon cries on the floor of a messy art room, reading Seo-jung’s text messages pleading to be heard out. The last message is that line we’re all familiar with by now.
Chan-hong repeats his narration about spring as he’s pushed off the roof. “Our spring has begun. It’s a spring that does not forgive dying things and reveals what’s hidden in the snow. A spring that urges you to shoot up. That cruel spring has begun.”
Nightfall, and a girl walks along the streets along as a text conversation takes place on-screen. Several people are panicking about Seo-jung’s messages having gone from unread to read. The person who’s received the texts coldly writes back: What else can we do? We should find out who read it. And we’re going to make that person die the way she did.
The girl stops in her tracks and turns–it’s Se-yoon.
What a jam-packed premiere. Without the luxury of a full-length drama to flesh out every detail, the risk of info-dumping is high, but I think the show managed to reveal enough to keep us interested without giving away everything.
Backstories were also efficiently covered by way of Kyung-pyo enlightening our clueless lead, and us, with exposition that wasn’t too drawn out (like when he talked about Seo-jung’s death and Don-hyuk’s reputation). I really enjoyed the visual foreshadowing which helped to prime some of the character introductions. We don’t know who exactly Madam Jo is yet, but she’s clearly a powerful woman and the royal armchair in the rundown warehouse made it clear that she’s not to be trifled with.
What really stood out to me was the clever cinematography throughout, and I was particularly impressed by the opening and closing scenes. It seemed the inverted shot used at the start of the drama could be a symbolic parallel to how Chan-hong’s world has turned upside down, as per his opening thoughts? I spied this creativity at the end of the episode too; the plot is driven forward and suspense is heightened with Se-yoon coming into focus as the invisible culprits plan their next move.
Techniques like these and a capable cast really layers to an otherwise run-of-the-mill plot (dark school dramas aren’t new in dramaland after all). Speaking of the cast, admittedly, I tuned in for Shin Seung-ho, but Lee Shin-young was a pleasant surprise. I didn’t pay much attention to him in Crash Landing on You (but then again, when the leads are Hyun Bin and Sohn Ye-jin, that’s a pretty high bar to clear), but his face is very expressive and he’s show pretty great range.
In an emotionally heavy show like this, comedic relief is always appreciated. I simply adore the Park family, and Dad’s easy-going nature and Mom’s pragmatism are both evident in their son. The only character I’m completely disinterested in is Dae-yong. I’m hoping he will turn out to be something more than just another bully; maybe he was somehow involved in Seo-jung’s death?
I can’t wait to uncover the mystery surrounding Don-hyuk. (Side note: is Shin Seung-ho just that tall or is it the camera angles?) The way he’s being filmed emphasizes his character’s reputation as this legendary high school fighter. Don-hyuk’s nickname is ironic considering how he’s been presented so far, he hasn’t really been fighting much. Even when Dae-yong tried to provoke him, he stayed calm. There are still a lot of unknowns around Don-hyuk’s personality and past. What was his relationship with Seo-jung and why did he ignore her right before her death? It’s interesting that Don-hyuk knew it was Seo-jung when she hadn’t been named in the news. Was he expecting to hear she had died, or did he put two and two together when the news mentioned the city name and high school?
So many questions! What was Chan-hong’s relationship with Seo-jung? Was it a coincidence that he was in an accident the same day she died? There’s much to be curious about, and I’m keen to find out how our duo eventually enters into a friendship contract (as the literal translation of the Korean title is “friendship contract”).